Ever since the first handful of marketers figured out that you could bring hundreds or thousands of customers to a website every day by mastering search engine optimization (SEO), businesses have been looking for new ways to improve their visibility on search sites. That trend has only accelerated as Google has become the world’s most popular website, garnering more than 2 billion hits per day and replacing print directories like the Yellow Pages in the process.

A couple of important things happened along the way. The first is that interest in SEO has become widespread and competition has intensified. There aren’t many businesses left that don’t at least try to improve their Google scoring, which means it’s harder for any particular website to stand out.

The second is that Google has tracked the changes it helped set in motion. The company’s directors understand that website owners are trying to game the system, and have shifted their focus somewhat as a result. They built the world’s most valuable enterprise by giving users exactly what they want, not making things easy for marketers. As a result, they’ve made moves to stay ahead of the curve and SEO has turned into something much different than it used to be.

If you want to fill your sales, funnel with searchers in 2017, and beyond, there are some things you have to know. Let’s dig into the details, starting with the most obvious first…

Google Uses Hundreds of Search Signals Now

Although optimizing a website for Google has never been completely straightforward, there was a time when search visibility essentially came down to two things: keywords and links. If you had a website with lots of highly searched terms and a healthy number of links pointed at its pages, Google and the other engines would assume you were quality, relevant source of information and send search traffic your way.

The problem with this formula, as we all know, is that it was easy to abuse. It wasn’t long before businesses were adding keywords to their pages in unnatural ways and combinations. Furthermore, they began using link farms to generate thousands of HTML trails at once. As more and more companies got in on the act, and the web started exploding at unprecedented rates, it became clear that the old search formula wasn’t holding up. Too many users were finding results for pages that were well-optimized but not particularly useful.

If you are at all fluent with SEO and internet marketing, you already know what happened next. What began as a series of small tweaks to Google’s algorithm ended up with major Penguin and Panda updates that took the value out of search optimization gimmicks. In fact, the company’s programmers put in penalties for low-quality search websites designed to look more relevant than they were. These days, following the old SEO playbook of pushing exact match search terms and hundreds or thousands of links, can get you banned from Google altogether.

In place of the old algorithm, we have something much more complex and nuanced. Although the exact formula Google uses remains a tightly held secret, it’s known that hundreds of factors are now considered search signals. Some of these are obvious: domain names, exact search matches, and inbound links from websites with a high Google page rank all still factor into the mix. And generally speaking, more content is much better than less as long as it’s on-topic.

In addition to these obvious criteria, however, Google now incorporates things like website speed, the availability of SSL connections, and mobile functionality into the mix. Geography and search history play a role, too. Obvious typos and grammatical errors can lead to search problems, as can broken links. Older websites seem to get more priority than newer ones, but fresh content is displayed before a newer update.

It would be easy to throw up our hands at all of this and say we don’t have any idea what Google wants anymore, but that’s not strictly true. Even though we may not be able to decipher the precise formula they are using, it’s clear the company is looking for current, authoritative search results to deliver to its users. It wants to show people great information on pages that are easy to navigate and understand.

The bottom line is that the more you have to offer a live person who’s looking for answers, the more value Google is going to assign to your website. That’s essentially the opposite of the way SEO used to work, and marketers who are clinging to the past are discovering how easy it is to see their search traffic dry up overnight.

Local and Mobile Searches Have Unique Markets

In a way, it’s not enough to say that geography and mobile functionality are search signals in 2017. That’s because it’s more accurate to suggest that local and mobile searches each represent unique markets.

In 2014, Google’s designers recognized that roughly one-quarter of all searches were for a local business or had a geographic component. For instance, users were entering search strings like “best deep dish pizza in Chicago,” or “closest pharmacy to me.” It didn’t make sense to display search results from around the country or the world, regardless of what content a website contained. A restaurant in Seattle might offer “Chicago-style deep dish pizza,” but that wouldn’t be relevant to the person in Illinois who just wanted a hot slice.

To help searchers find what they were looking for, Google’s algorithm was adapted to prioritize local results for certain types of search queries. Local algorithm changes along with the rapid integration of smartphones and tablets in day-to-day usage have led to even more local searches conducted online. Now, nobody turns to the Yellow Pages to find a business in their area. Instead, they ask Google, Siri, or another digital assistant and then sift through results that include maps, reviews, and phone numbers for instant access.

What this means is that a business that relies on retail or walk-in customers has to ensure its geographic keywords and markers are crystal-clear. Their website needs to feature an address, ZIP code, maps, driving directions, and possibly even references to local landmarks. That’s because every geographic market is separate, which can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on how well your website is optimized for local traffic.

The same thing is happening with mobile searching. As a result of the “Mobile add-on” algorithm update, Google will essentially exclude you from mobile searches if you don’t have a responsive website. Google knows users will become frustrated if they click through to a result that isn’t properly configured for the device they are using, so the search engine will bypass you altogether.

In essence, there are three search markets in 2017. One is local, one is mobile, and one for traditional laptop and desktop users (who are rapidly shrinking as an audience). These markets are going to overlap on a frequent basis. For instance, a huge proportion of local searches originates from mobile devices. A person with a craving for pizza that I mentioned earlier might look for a good place near his office, or wherever he happens to be standing with his phone. Or someone who looks for a web design company like WebWize from a computer in their office might prefer a vendor in the same state or county.

To make the most of Google’s popularity today, it’s vitally important to be aware of these differences and use them to your advantage. I’ve already mentioned that a mobile-friendly website is a must, but you should do what you can to prioritize local search engine optimization as well. Your neighborhood represents a unique market that you can probably dominate if you’re willing to pay enough attention to it. But, you can’t afford to let the competition gain a permanent edge.

Semantic Search Is Changing Everything

While many business owners and executives are aware of the Penguin and Panda updates – even if they don’t quite understand the details and implications – I find that most aren’t that familiar with the concept of semantic search. That’s unfortunate because it’s arguably more important than any specific algorithm update we’ve seen in the past.

The concept behind semantic search is simple: Rather than focusing on specific keywords, links, or anchor text, it’s better for Google to analyze the meaning and authority of a website so it can match user queries appropriately. In other words, the best search result isn’t necessarily the one that obviously fits the search criteria given. Instead, contextual factors might come into play.

Websites with lots of content and a good reputation are going to benefit, while those that are built based on fading algorithms will fall behind.

To give you a sense of how this might play out, consider what could happen if someone were to enter the phrase “learn to fly” in Google. Based on keywords and links, the obvious choice might be a page that refers to a popular rock song. It could have hundreds of back links, and dozens of exact phrase matches and internal links, from the title down to the body text.

But would that necessarily be the most useful result for the user? In a majority of cases, unless a band name or other modifying keyword were used, it probably wouldn’t. And so, Google might choose to prioritize a local flight school or website that explains the process of becoming a pilot. In either case, the results given might not score as highly within the search algorithm but are contextually more appropriate. That would especially be true if they had dozens of other pages and blog posts all related to the general topic of flight.

Semantic search marks an important turning point in the evolution of SEO because it’s based on understanding, authority, and supporting evidence rather than strict algorithms. Additionally, it affects long-tail searches, which account for about a third of all of Google’s queries, disproportionately. When someone types in a very long search string, or speaks a natural language phrase into an app on their phone, they are likely to be presented either with a set of local listings or a semantically generated set of results.

As these types of queries become more and more popular, and Google relies more heavily on semantic technology, the role of keywords and links are being reduced. Websites with lots of content and a good reputation are going to benefit, while those that are built based on fading algorithms will fall behind.

That would give business owners lots to think about already. To make matters even more complicated, however, we have to account for the growing role of artificial intelligence in determining search results.

Artificial Intelligence Is “Learning” Search and Rewriting Algorithms

I’ve saved the biggest and most profound change to search engine optimization in 2017 for last. That’s partly because it’s the newest, but also because it’s the hardest to define and understand.

In recent months, Google has been integrating “RankBrain” and other forms of artificial intelligence into searches. The goal isn’t to simply improve or refine its already groundbreaking algorithm, but to eliminate the need for it.

How does a supercomputer handle search requests? It begins by trying to understand the intent behind a search. Going beyond keywords, links, and other obvious factors, it aims to determine what the searcher wants. Is someone who asks Google about “baseball” looking for tickets to the game, equipment for their weekend league, or just TV listings? The answer could be any of the above, but an AI platform can evaluate things like time, location, current events, and search history to make a guess. Then, it can rank some results that have been gathered semantically based on context.

Even more interesting, though, is what Google’s supercomputer will do next. Once the user chooses a result, it will watch to see how the searcher engages with the result. Do they stay on the page? Click on links (internal or external)? Leave right away and check out a different result? Search something new and more specific?

By monitoring and aggregating the results, Google’s AI can learn about the nature of search itself. And more pragmatically, it can apply what it sees to future searches that match a similar profile. In that way, it can “learn” which results are good ones, even if traditional algorithmic indicators point in another direction.

Those of us in the web design and internet marketing industry expect AI to become a bigger and bigger part of Google’s search mix going forward. Eventually, we may reach a point where things like phrase matches and links are just a starting point for any query – what will determine search rankings will be context, authority, search history, and studied user behavior.

In this process, science fiction will be brought into reality. More importantly, Google will continue on the path it’s already on, finding ways to prioritize what actual searchers want in favor of websites that simply stand out to automated spiders because of their keyword density or link profile. The future doesn’t belong to the computers; it belongs to the marketers who know their audience and can deliver content that is perfectly tailored to them.

How to Get Ahead of Google’s Changes

The shifting landscape of search engine optimization in 2017 can be good news or bad news for business owners, depending on whether they’re willing to take action or not. The ones that take action are going to get ahead; the ones that don’t will continue to fall farther and farther behind.

If you’re wondering what you can do to give yourself a permanent advantage on Google and the other search engines, it’s easy: Build a website that customers will love. Continually add new, in-depth, and relevant pieces of content to your pages. Focus on your local market, and a small slice of your industry, and then make sure what you can be accessed quickly through both traditional computers and mobile devices.

Pay less attention to keywords, and more to the context and authority of your website. That means building on your ideas and becoming a thought leader rather than worrying about algorithmic updates.

It’s true that Google is evolving rapidly. But that doesn’t mean we are facing a lot of unknowns. In fact, we know precisely what the engineers at the world’s largest search engine are trying to achieve: They want to give users (that is, searchers) more of what they want. And again and again, searchers have shown they prefer clean, informative websites that are up to date and easy to navigate.

If you can remember that, you’ll always be ahead of the search engine optimization curve. Because while your competitors are busy worrying about small updates and shifts, you’ll be building a web presence that real-life users want to find. That means you’ll always come out on top, regardless of what happens with digital assistants, AI, or other emerging technologies.

It’s a Whole New World of SEO Out There

The seismic changes coming to search engine optimization were set in motion years ago, but a variety of compounding factors is bringing them together all at once. Over-optimization introduced competition and new search signals, including website speed and stability. Print directories are dying away while mobile devices are finding their way into every home and office, fueling the new importance of local search visibility and mobile functionality.

While all this is happening, searchers are starting to demand more quality and precision than ever before. No algorithm can provide that definitively, and the number of people needed to oversee the quirks of search engine development would make it impossible without the use of artificial intelligence.

And so, we arrive at a moment when the future is now, and the old SEO tricks customers counted on for so long just don’t work anymore.  Make no mistake: Keywords and links still matter in 2017, but more and more it’s all about what you can do for the customers you want to attract. If you want to gain a top search ranking and keep it, you need to be producing high-quality content on a regular basis. That’s how your site becomes authoritative and useful, and it’s going to be increasingly necessary to search engine optimization going forward.

10-Point Strategy Guide to Small Business Website Design and Internet Marketing is a ten part Blog series by Founder and Owner of WebWize, Inc., Glenn Brooks.

Glenn has been part of the website design and development industry since 1994, over two decades.  Before WebWize he spent more than 15 years in the Advertising, Marketing, and Print Industries.  Don't miss this opportunity!

10 Part Strategy Series TOC

Strategy #6: Use Social Media Productively
Strategy #7: Integrate Video Into Your Internet Marketing
Strategy #8: Revitalize Your Email Marketing
Strategy #9: Cultivate and Grow Your Online Reputation
Strategy #10: Refine and Improve Your Sales Funnel

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About Glenn Brooks

Glenn Brooks is the founder of WebWize, Inc. WebWize has been providing web design, development, hosting, SEO and email services since 1994. Glenn graduated from SWTSU with a degree in Commercial Art and worked in the advertising, marketing and printing industries before starting WebWize.